Eking out legislation in D.C.

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

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All the recent headlines about what isn’t getting done in our nation’s capital left me wondering what overlooked legislation local business people should know about. Here’s a roundup of business-related congressional actions taken since summer — and why they matter to Clark County’s economy:

Patent reform: It takes three years for officials at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to review inventions, thanks to a backlog of 700,000 patent applications. The system is so convoluted that some inventors don’t think patents are worth the effort.

The America Invents Act aims to fix that. It should streamline the application process for big businesses, give individual inventors a cheaper way to obtain patents and cut down on litigation.

This is great news for dozens of small inventors across Clark County, such as Camas-based Inventist, maker of scooters, hydrofoils and sold-on-TV gadgets. The change also bodes well for home-grown nLight of Vancouver and Japan-based Sharp Corp., which employs scores of engineers in Camas.

Helping outsourced workers: When Americans lose their jobs to globalization — say manufacturing goes to Mexico — the Trade Adjustment Assistance Act gives them tools to get back on their feet.

Hundreds of Clark County residents laid off from companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Panasonic Shikoku Electronics and SEH America have tapped into the program. It offers financial help with education costs, health insurance tax credits and job search allowances. Nathan Mellor, owner of Critter Map Software in Camas, used the TAA to start his business after he was laid off.

That help was about to disappear, but Democrats and Republicans came together in October to renew the law.

Globalizing trade: Congress this fall authorized free-trade agreements with Columbia, South Korea and Panama.

Free trade opens up new markets for U.S. companies to sell into — potentially good for a state as trade-dependent as Washington. Boeing can now sell to Columbia without tariffs. Panama has agreed to rigorously enforce U.S. intellectual property rights, a boon to software companies such as Microsoft. And Toyota is shipping cars to South Korea that were made in the U.S., rather than those made in Japan, because of the new trade policies.

However, ree-trade agreements also make it easier for companies to ship jobs overseas. That’s a key reason that help for displaced workers was extended.

Congress’ acts won’t solve Clark County’s immediate economic woes. Most recent business-backed bills are dead or in limbo. Given the harm that bad laws can cause, though, maybe we should be grateful that Congress isn’t doing more.

Got gratitude?

I’m looking for things to be thankful about for my Thanksgiving week column.

Do you have a story about a business or workplace that would qualify? How about a personal anecdote about money or a job, or a statistic about Clark County’s economy? If so, I’d love to hear from you.

Courtney Sherwood is The Columbian’s business editor. Email courtney.sherwood@columbian.com.